Day 5: Grand Finale at Mammoth Lakes Film Festival


Lots of laughs today as the Mammoth Lakes Film Festival drew to a close.

The short Horseshoe Theory hilariously proves that politics makes strange bedfellows indeed.  A weapons deal between a white supremacist and a member of the Islamic State becomes, well, a romantic comedy. Director and writer Johnathan Daniel Brown perfectly cast Jackson Rathbone and Amir Malaklou as the pair in a film that was “inspired” in part by The Notebook and You Got Mail.  The 3 day shoot included a scene with a $50 jerry-rigged rain machine. Brown attests that he’s currently working on a feature adaptation of the project. “We want to place it in a bigger world – and we’re pitching it as Brokeback Mountain with more killing. We’re also working on another short – we like to make gross stories about silly vulgar things that terrify people.” And make them laugh.


The international premiere of narrative feature The Great Unwashed was also brilliantly hilarious. Set in London and Wales with an absolutely spot-on cast of British comedy and sketch performers and writers, the story of a millennial (Jon Pointing) on the run from killer hairdressers is zany and inventive. Joining his hippie older brother (and co-writer Nick Horseman) and his wife in the Welsh woods – plus random loony neighbors –  the film mixes comic mobsters with the affect of a murderous A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Director and co-writer Louis Fonseca, a former stand-up comic himself,  culled his stellar cast perfectly. Shot in two weeks “in less than a square mile of the forest” he notes that the “hippie story line came first, and then we came up on what is the opposite of that – hairdressers. We felt like we were at holiday camp, we had such fun and we didn’t sleep much.” The film includes attack geese and the presence of the Welch “Spirit of the Forest.”  Fonseca says his father was the official “goose wrangler – geese are nasty creatures ready to attack visitors. We did our goose shot in one take.” Fonseca and Horseman are currently writing another film set in Wales -about a war between ice cream vendors.


Withdrawn, the story of a slacker/small time grifter/aimless college graduate stars Aaron Keogh – “I’ve been training for this role for 25 years or so,” he jokes – as Aaron, with writer/director Adrian Murray as his put-upon roommate.  From trying to solve his Rubik’s cube to trying to hack into another’s credit card account, Aaron is a character for our time: lost, adrift, addicted to video games and Internet news.  Played out in many long takes, Murray says his cinematic approach was in part imagined due to “watching the menu background on Lost DVDs, where characters move in and out of frame. I was watching the show while sick, and I wondered if I could do that as a film. ” Most of the dialog was improv, with a cast of friends who knew who was going to bring what to the game. Of the protagonist’s news viewing habits, Murray remarks “I wanted to put his struggle in perspective. In another part of the world he’d be building a bomb. I was also commenting on the cycle of news and the information and knowledge degradation and loss.” The short Pet Monkey preceded the film, a wild and quirky piece about a man who wants to buy his girlfriend a pet monkey while secretly harboring a shed full of stuffed and plastic monkeys. Actor Sky Elobar spoke about the single day shoot in Rochester, N.Y., in which he was promised one of the art director’s purchased monkeys as a souvenir but groused that he “never got one.” Elobar was found by director Eric Maira off his titular role in late night cult favorite Greasy Strangler.



Last but not least, the festival presented the amusing and touching documentary Dina,  which focuses on a woman with autism and other mental health issues. She survived a vicious  knife attack by an ex-boyfriend to marry kindly but more severely autistic Scott. Winner of the Grand Jury award at this year’s Sundance fest, the story offers an intimate portrait of a relationship as thoroughly relatable as it is special.

MLFF’s delightful fest trailer, featuring stop motion animation, was discussed preceding the film by co-director/creator Emily Hoffman. She’d attended the festival last year and was thrilled to be invited to make the trailer. “We had such an amazing time last year when we went to the hot springs at midnight, we knew we had to make the trailer about the springs outside town. We made stop motion puppets and placed them in goo made from borax, glue, and paint.” Hoffman’s roommate Dan Dietrich created the music which involves manipulated notes made from a recording of his own voice.  “It’s an awesome, ephemeral thing,” Hoffman says. “We wanted to make it nice because you have to listen to the trailer so many times,” she says. Hoffman crafted the trailer with partner Ariel Noltimier Strauss.


We only wish we could listen to it longer – but these were the last screenings of MLFF 2017.

  • Genie Davis; Photos: Jack Burke


Mammoth Lakes Film Festival Day 4: Sierra Spirit Award Recipient John Sayles and More



With a triumphant screening of John Sayles’ Baby It’s You, an extended q & a with director Sayles, star Vincent Spano, and Sayles’ life and creative partner Maggie Renzi, day 4 of the Mammoth Lakes Film Festival was packed with film pleasure.  Day 4 also brought  the documentary Olancho and the narrative dark comedy Neighborhood Food Drive.

Olancho tells the story of talented Honduran musicians who perform and record songs for members of a local drug cartel, and songwriter Manuel’s escape to the U.S. Involving footage of life in the Honduran region of Olancho, terrific portraits of Manuel, his band, and his family all make for a fascinating look at a relatively isolated portion of Honduras, as well as its music. First time filmmakers Chris Valdes and Ted Griswold taught school in the region in 2010. According to Griswold, “We taught for over two years, and some of the children we were teaching were kids of the narcos. We knew enough people that when we came back to film, people knew our intentions were good. At first we didn’t realize how important the connections we made were to keeping us safe, such as Manuel’s father  – but these relationships helped us a lot and got us out of situations that would have otherwise been dangerous.” Valdes adds “In Olancho, death is a part of everyday life. I taught 6th graders, and not a day went by without someone saying who they’d found dead on the street. You don’t think about it until you come home, and your mom at Thanksgiving says ‘that’s hairy.'”  Following the travails of Los Plebes de Olancho lead singer Manuel, as well as the wild exploits of accordian player Orlin,  viewers get an insightful look at Olancho’s world.  An elegaic short about life in Havana, Paloma, preceded the film.


The witty short Crown Prince directed by Samy Burch and Alex Mechanik opened for the narrative Neighborhood Food Drive. Crown Prince played with the concept of a prince from Luxembourg set loose in New York City. Burch notes that the cast was “all comedians” and she wrote “character bios but then let the actors do improv based on that.” Shot in a glossy black and white, the piece was a fun crowd-pleaser. The directors are currently working on a feature project. Neighborhood Food Drive, directed by Jerzy Rose and co-written by Rose, Mike Lopez, and Halle Butler, is an exceedingly dry dark comedy about a struggling Chicago restaurant, its deluded owners, a naive intern,  her waiter boyfriend, and their professor/couples counselor hosting a fundraiser.  What comes together is less a charitable event than a disaster. Peppered with in-jokes, a fun/scary synth horror score,  and “hall of mirrors strangeness,” as writer Butler attests,  the film lives up to Rose’s hope that it would be “like nothing anyone would ever have seen before.”



The screening of John Sayles’ classic Baby It’s You was as enjoyable as it was still cutting-edge after all these years. The film was made in 1983, but its strong performances and tight, smart, emotionally real script by Sayles are still fresh. The high school to college love affair is deftly portrayed, and the direction is emblematic of Sayles as a true “actors director.”  After the screening, co-star Vincent Spano presented the Sierra Spirit Award to Sayles. “John Sayles exemplifies the spirit and dedication of remaining independent. He has a dedication to getting films done his way,” Spano says. In graciously accepting the award, Sayles added “You don’t do these things alone. I write, direct, and edit most of my movies, but you are working with so many talented people – my favorite part of the job.”  Producing partner Maggie Renzi has worked on 14 of Sayles’ 18 features.  “We were very lucky,” Renzi says. “There used to be an art house audience and our movies fit into that niche, and then VHS happened, and you could fund anything. It was a very lively independent marketplace; you could get money for $3-million movies. Now you cant get money for $1 million movies.  It’s much harder for filmmakers today.” Sayles notes that on the positive side, access to filmmaking equipment and skilled filmmaking personnel is much easier today.  As to Baby It’s You,  which was the only film Sayles has ever done screen-tests for “”When Vincent came in, I said that’s the guy. He was just right for the part. A week before we started shooting, Paramount wasn’t sure about their actors and wanted people of their own. But I held my ground.” He also held his ground in regard to story, rejecting a studio re-edit and ending up with the film he’d wanted to make, albeit one that received limited release at the time. Spano  points out “He has a lot of faith in his actors. The character, the story, it’s there on the page, and it was pretty certain who the characters were. He gives you everything you need.” Likewise, Sayles was impressed with the work of cinematographer Michael Ballhaus, who recently passed away.  “He was the best operator I ever worked with…I never had to look in the camera after the third day, he got what I wanted.”







With an after-party at the local nightspot Rafters – and live music by Jelly Bread,  day four of the fest that rocks the Sierras drew to a close, promising more fine films tomorrow.


  • Genie Davis; Photos: Jack Burke


Dynamic Docs and Scintillating Shorts: Mammoth Lakes Film Festival


The second full day of programming at the Mammoth Lakes Film Festival brought two dynamic documentaries and a great group of shorts. The docs program is incredibly strong at MLFF this year, and both “What Lies Upstream,” an indictment of government handling of a massive chemical spill, and “Forever B,” a fascinating and appalling look at the fallout from a child molester are compelling projects.


Shorts Block 2 brought a wide range of films including “Sadhu in Bombay,” an intimate rough and tumble portrait of a bitter Mumbai chauffeur, the pencil-drawing animated “Insect Bite,”  and “Oui Mais Non (Yes but No Thanks),” a French Canadian film about the relationship between a zany/crazy neighbor girl and a young wife which was strange, funny, and exhilarating. “Cold Shivers” gave the audience just that, as director Marius Myrmel deals with the fall out from an incestuous mother/son relationship. Abstract animation came to the fore with the projected animation visuals of “Chella Drive,” a reflection on a Southern California suburb; “The Sacred Mushroom Edition” amusingly details a conversation between two fallen angels about rock and roll. “Lucas Camry Alex” is a wild slice of life set in New Orleans that focuses on relationship problems and ends with an indelible image of a burning car in the Gulf of Mexico.  Michael Arcos, one of three directors on the sultry,  fascinating film says “Lucas was the actual guy who owned a car he wanted to destroy for insurance reasons…the project cost us $400 and a car. We shot with four different cameras. We made it for ourselves,” he says. New Orleans, which itself is a character in the film is “Like a junk Disneyworld, it has a pretty harsh underbelly. ” Arcos says he’s drawn to that slightly seamy side of life, and is now focusing on another short called “The Booth” which depicts private viewing booths in adult stores. “4:15 PM The End of the World” rounded out the shorts program in which a cynical deliveryman meets a hitchhiker who claims to be Jesus but may in fact be a murderer. Eerie and darkly comic, this is an assured and memorable work.


Now to those docs: “What Lies Upstream”  is every inch the passion project of investigative filmmaker Cullen Hoback, who traveled to West Virginia to uncover the truth behind a massive chemical spill that left no doubt about the power of lobbyists and bureaucratic cover-ups all the way to the top levels of government. As much a suspense thriller as a documentary, Hoback’s exacting eye became tuned to two vast problems involving pollution today: “There is so much money influence, and then bureaucracy and careerism. The mentality in agencies like the EPA and the CDC is that in order to look like they’re doing their jobs, they don’t do their jobs at all. That’s the crux of it.” The West Virginia spill left 300,000 people without drinking water for months, and leads to a trail of corruption. “Every documentary filmmaker will say the same thing,” Hoback reports. “If you haven’t figured out the real meaning to your story, you just need to wait. What I found was that if you wait long enough, the money will find a way.  Without campaign reform, you can’t address lobbyist dollars and political appointments. There’s a lack of a firewall between politicians and science. It’s like a corrupt police department, and we need independent research and an auditing system.” Beautifully shot and masterfully told, this is a must-see film about the environmental perils – and the governmental ones – around us.


“Forever ‘B'” presents the fascinating and deeply strange story of the Broberg family circa the 1970s. Mother, father and 12 year old daughter Jan fell under the sway of a charismatic pedophile – who had affairs with both parents and kidnapped Jan twice.  The film had its world premiere at MLFF. Director Skye Borgman notes “It’s a very messy story, and it was hard to get that sympathy in there for the parents, but we always came back to the truth and how it would guide us. The book that Jan and her mother eventually published had more crazy twists and turns in it than I presented in the film, but didn’t reveal all that we did. I’m not sure how we gained their trust – we sat and listened for eight hours. It took them forty years to get to the point where they were able to reveal what they did.” Borgman says the editing process was extremely difficult,  inter-cutting the horrifying and intense interviews with Jan, her sisters, and her parents with reenactments of events, audio tapes provided by the FBI, and family photographs. A jaw-dropping story, the film serves as a cautionary tale in the extreme.



Another day of provocative, exciting programming at MLFF – and another reason to make the drive “into the woods” for films you won’t want to miss.

  • Genie Davis; Photos: Jack Burke

Mountains of Movies: The Mammoth Lakes Film Festival Returns


Just in time to help film fans celebrate Memorial Day, the third annual Mammoth Lakes Film Festival runs May 24-28th. The fest screens narrative and documentary features and shorts.  MLFF was named one of the “Top 50 Festivals Worth Your Entry Fee” by Movie Maker Magazine in 2016. Having attended last year, we look forward to another full schedule of eclectic entries which we’ll be covering daily during the festival run.

Festival founder Shira Dubrovner notes that the third year brings expanded programming to the festival, doubling the number of filmmakers attending the festival and bringing more spotlight events and featured artists to the festival.

“This year our opening night screening is Up In Smoke with Tommy Chong in person; later in the festival we will honor John Sayles with the Sierra Spirit Award, presented to him by Vincent Spano; and for our Saturday Morning Indie Cartoons event, the Bum Family will fly in from Calgary, Canada to give a presentation to kids on how to make paper cut-out animation,” Dubrovner notes.
Above, festival founder Dubrovner, center, at the closing awards ceremonies in 2016.
While the festival continues to expand, the intimate nature of the festival will not change, Dubrovner attests. “We will always keep our commitment to filmmakers by making Mammoth Lakes a filmmakers-first festival. That has been our vision and commitment since day one. We continue to help each filmmaker with the expense of attending the festival by offering travel stipends and housing. We create a fun, intimate and accessible experience for everyone that attends—filmmakers, audiences, industry professionals, press and our local volunteers.”
The festival is very different from others throughout California, and different too than well-known behemoths like Sundance and Telluride. We found attending the event last year to be a special experience, one in which we could spend time with filmmakers, and uncover international as well as local films that were extremely fresh in terms of subject and style. From smart comedies to awe inspiring documentaries, the festival doesn’t hold back when it comes to presenting intimate stories.
“We take our time to create a program with a specific vision; we champion personal, innovative storytelling. We showcase filmmakers who are unafraid to dig deep into themselves and bring their work to life with sensitivity, playfulness and a depth of vision,” Dubrovner attests.
Of course the beauty of the fest’s Sierra setting is also first class.
“We give a platform to these artists in a nurturing and awe-inspiring setting in the Eastern Sierra. Our primary commitment is to the talented, maverick artists that we bring together every year in May.”
And to creating a stellar line-up of films that will have audience’s talking for the rest of 2017.
– Genie Davis; Photos: Courtesy of MLFF and Jack Burke